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November 1st, 2002

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04:00 am - Make money very slowly
You may know that I wrote a published book. I take a faintly guilty pleasure in this given the number of fantastic fiction writers I know who are far more deserving of publication than I am. Recently it was republished in the USA and today I got a cheque pertaining to the sales. Now what this means in practice is that the effective hourly rate I received for writing the book very, very slowly has jumped from somewhere below the national minimum wage to possibly 25% above it.

I first encountered David J. Bodycombe through e-mail at university. David went to Durham and is a couple of years ahead of me. The context in which I know him was discussion of The Crystal Maze; he got in at the start and submitted game ideas to the show back during the first series, before the world and his dog thought they were the first people to think of doing so. He sent in twenty ideas, they liked one of them and used it in the second series and he became one of a decreasing number of suppliers whose games were used over the remaining series. (One of the few other suppliers went on to form successful format factory The Chatterbox Partnership.)

This single success in the early '90s has inspired ten years of devising and editing puzzles - go and look at his client list, noting that about a dozen of the contracts mentioned have been what you or I would think of as very substantial indeed. Anyway, David wrote two very thick puzzle books packed full of fine ideas and edited two others. His publishers then offered him a series of four smaller books whose gimmick is that they would be full colour throughout. One thing led to another and I ended up writing one of the four in the series myself, the precisely-titled "Mystery Puzzles", a 128-page book with a hundred colourful puzzles and 20 pages of answers, between November 1997 (not very long after I left university, while I was trying - and failing - to break into TV myself) and May '98. In the end, the first two books of the four, sadly not including mine, were published in September '98 and the second two in November '99.

Big admission time: not all one hundred puzzles in my book are my own creation. This is because the publishers, Robinson Publishing (now Constable Robinson) swapped some of the puzzles from one book in the series to another. This means that there are some puzzles in my book whose answers I will not be able to bring to mind straight away. (Furthermore, if you do want to see all hundred puzzles which I devised, you need to buy the other three books in the series and get me to point out which puzzles in them are mine.)

One unusual marketing trick about the series of four books is that first they were all sold as paperbacks, under the Robinson Publishing brand, with ISBN 1-85487-581-7, for GBP 4.99 as part of the puzzle book line-up in regular stores, aimed to be sold at people who might buy interesting-looking new puzzle books. Some months later, they were relaunched in hardback (not other change was made) and sold in bulk to places like Woolworths and discount book shops; the theory is that they wouldn't particularly be bought by people who were looking for interesting puzzle books, they would instead be bought by people who saw the front cover and thought it looked colourful and attractive and didn't care whether the puzzles inside were interesting or not. This was published under the Mustard brand with ISBN 1-84164-361-0; Mustard is an imprint of Parragon (sic), so you might sometimes see that brand name listed instead. Indeed, no price was written on the back cover of the hardback edition so that shops could choose their own price - normally GBP 2.99, sometimes GBP 1.99 - and luridly advertise it with a sticker on the front.

I once managed to pick up four copies of my own hardback this way for the whopping sum of 99p each. I gratuitously paid for them using a credit card in the hope that the cashier would notice I was buying four of the same book, see my name on the credit card, see my name on the books and put two and two together, but she didn't fall for it. I bet J. R. Hartley never had this problem. (Explanation: fictional author who famously tried to purchase a copy of his own book in a TV advert for the "Yellow Pages" telephone directory.)

The latest development is that Constable Robinson sold the rights to publish the books in the US to Barnes & Noble Books, from whom you can purchase the US hardback - er - hardcover edition, ISBN 0760728984, for just US$5.98. Curiously - and not at all in a partisan fashion - you can't find the B&N version anywhere on Amazon. If you're in the UK, things are a bit harder; you can still see the book listed at Amazon UK, but they are out of stock and they link to one marketplace seller with one copy. (Hurry! Hurry!)

You might also try getting the book second-hand. An offline friend purchased a copy of the hardback in a local charity shop for GBP 1.25. (They got ripped off.) You can also sometimes find copies on abebooks, a highly-regarded second-hand-book-dealers network. At the moment, there appear to be four copies, priced at US$3.95, US$1.01 (!), US$9.34 and US$9.97 respectively. The latter two are from British book dealers, so you may well find it easier to buy through abebooks.co.uk instead.

The sales figures wander up and down - they go up in big bumps and then wander downwards as returns exceed new sales. I've never been completely sure specifically how many UK books sold were hardback and how many were paperback, but it looks like fewer than a thousand were sold at the full GBP 4.99 cover price. If you add up sales of the hardback, the paperback and the US then the big number is 23,596, which is quite nice, but I'm always going to be racing against the square root of J. K. Rowling's sales figures rather than her full figure.

I haven't made a great deal of money from the book. I'm debating whether or not to make a Friends-only post with the actual figures, but it's really not much. It took me rather longer than I feel it should have done to devise the puzzles and I've not got much faster in the quiz and puzzle writing I've done ever since, which is why I haven't seriously considered it as a full-time career. I'm always coming up with ideas for puzzles so it's likely that they will get used in some form or other, but another Book O'Chris looks quite unlikely. (However, if I ever came up with, say, fifty puzzles first then I might inquire about getting into the right place at the right time to have another book published. Probably better to get the puzzles before the book rather than the book before the puzzles for a hypothetical second time.)

When you look at the figures, it looks like the publishers won't have made much money from the book either. Indeed, I've heard that most publishers make small losses on most books - it's just the occasional successes and the even more occasional smash hits that make the business worth pursuing.

I only know a handful of people who make the majority of their money as an author. Talking of smash hits, I was pleased to get to (at least vaguely) know Trevor Montague, multiple quiz champ, through my work with the MSO. His A-Z of Everything has been a considerable success, which is gratifying. Trevor is about the best at what he does, he spent a very long time writing the book and eventual publication was delayed due to situations beyond his control more than once. However, the book is extremely well regarded and it looks set to be considered a major desktop encyclopedia, to be updated every other year from now on. Sales have been appropriately high, not least because a number of book clubs featured it as their Book Of The Month and it sold well to the book-club-joining audience. Trevor is a very good guy and deserves his success.

However, I also know another gentleman who shall remain anonymous except for the nickname Fat Bastard, for which he qualifies on both counts. FB has authored and co-authored a considerable number of books, possibly even into triple figures, on - shall we say - a moderately specialist subject. (Sometimes "specialist" is used as coy shorthand for "pornographic", but this doesn't apply here.) The quality of some of FB's early work is highly regarded, but it is generally considered that the vast majority of his work over the past fifteen or twenty years does not represent particularly hard or well-considered labour to the point where the afficionados generally consider that the appearance of the name Bastard on the front cover makes the book an automatic "don't buy". Anyhow, a source reveals that FB has grumbled that he has never made more than GBP 5,000 per year from his books. While I haven't made anything like GBP 5,000 per year from my one book, this does still strike me as justice of a sort.

For every Fat Bastard there are many authors whose hearts are definitely in the right place. Happily, it's not just the Bastards of the world who are prolific, too. For what it's worth, I can and do recommend all the books that David Bodycombe has written. (The ones he's edited, too, but get the ones he wrote first.) My favourite of his is Codes & Ciphers which is packed with very unusual, clever and not-a-little-wacky ideas (again, US$5.98 from bn.com); for a more general book with 330 puzzles, try his Mammoth Puzzle Carnival as well. ($10.95, though, and all black and white.) FWIW, "IQ Obstacle Course" and "IQ Mine Field" are renamed, re-issued titles of some of his other work. In honesty, I would recommend his books ahead of mine to all who consider themselves puzzle fans. David is about the best at what he does in this country at the moment. (This is suspiciously similar to what I said about Trevor Montague - happily, David and Trevor do quite different things, so both are possible simultaneously.)

Today's cheque is progress of a sort, though; it won't change my life, it'll just clear off nearly half of my mounting credit card bill. I had been expecting this cheque to arrive for some time, so its arrival today wasn't a particular surprise. (I was also expecting more than I actually got, but there are good, logical reasons why I was expecting the wrong amount of money - no problems with the publisher or anything like that.)

I don't like asking for money - technically, this money should have come some time ago as part of my advance for which I never fully submitted invoices. (The money will still arrive, just in drips and drabs over the years, rather than as a lump at the start.) In a sense, I don't even particularly like receiving money; the prospect of money to come in the future is somehow more exciting and positive than money here today in the bank. (Or, at least, paying off the credit card bill.) It's an attitude that's got me into trouble in the past, alas, but that's another story for another day.

We have now reached the eleventh month of the year, at least in this time zone, so NaNoWriMo is now in effect. (OK, so it's the National Novel Writing Month, but NaNoWriMo was a word just waiting to become a backronym - or, at least, a back-sort-of-acronym.) I think seven of my Friends - bluebyrd, flourish, hawkida, tranquillo, calliaume, missingdonut and verlaine - are in on this year's iteration of the literary marathon and will each attempt to write a 50,000 word novel in the next 720 hours. Such an activity defines the adjective nice-mad and I shall persistently be in awe at their achievement. Hugs, warm thoughts and bushels of excellent ideas which cannot be described in less than a few thousand words to them all.

Walked to town today to pay this cheque into the bank. Got an appointment for an eye test (next Wednesday, 2:30pm, GBP 17) and visited a computer shop for advice on my video card problems. They effectively said "Dunno, guv", but gave lots of good suggestions. They pointed that it could well be because I have a crazy amount of electronic equipment in the room in very close proximity to each other.

Currently I have a 6-gang plug block into which is plugged the monitor, the PC, the speakers, a printer, a scanner and a clock radio; this 6-gang plug block goes into a 4-gang which also has a room heater and two VCRs hanging off it. (Technically, the scanner is unplugged at the moment and my digital camera is recharging instead.) I know this is unhealthy, bordering on dangerous, but I do have all this equipment and I realistically could well want to use any of it at any time. Can you offer any suggestions as to what to do?

I know such things as 8-gang blocks exist and I suppose that one 8-gang is probably rather safer than a 6-gang and a 4-gang at the cost of only one socket. (Do 10-gang blocks exist?) Getting more plug sockets installed into the room is not an option, unfortunately. I also don't know whether it's the plugs that are causing the problem or the equipment. Does equipment cause more problems when it's plugged in but switched off than when it's not plugged in at all, for instance? I shall try to magic up more table space from somewhere - easier said than done - and rearranging to see if this improves matters.

The kind and concerned Iain Weaver wrote a wonderfully comprehensive answer, which I can do no better than to quote in full, not least for hypothetical (in a "God, I hope not" sort of way) future reference. Earwig oh:

"A number things that could be going wrong: monitor; lead between monitor
and PC; video card; video card driver.

Given that the problem is captured by Print Screen, we can rule out a
problem after the video signal leaves the back of your computer. Given
also that it's an *intermittent* problem, I'm leaning towards suspecting
the video card itself, rather than the driver - the software that
controls the video card.

To test this, boot your PC into Safe Mode. (Switch it off, switch it back
on, hold down the F8 key, then choose "Safe Mode" from the menu.) Has the
problem gone away in a time when it would normally appear? If it has,
that'll be your video driver. If the problem is still there, the video
card itself has become damaged and will need replacing. Either way, go to
Shutdown and Restart, and don't hold down any keys. You'll be back in
Normal Mode in a jiffy [1].

If you need to replace the video card, you can do it yourself, armed with
nothing more than a new card, a screwdriver and a sense of adventure.
However, you may prefer to have a local PC repair shop handle the
installation for a nominal fee. The card should set you back no more than

If it's the video driver, have a good hunt on the CDs and/or floppies that
came with your PC. If you can find it, use it. We know it worked, once
upon a time.

If you really can't find it, you'll have to download it from your
favourite drivers site. To help, right click on My Computer, choose
Properties, go to Device Manager. (If you're running Win 2000 or XP, this
is a button on one of the tabs, I *think* Hardware.) Find "Display
Adapters," click + by that, and note down the make and model shown.

Now go to http://download.com.com and type in your adapter in the box at
the top. If it doesn't return a hit straight away, chop bits off the end.
For instance, the UltraCompact MiniThingummy 101X doesn't have a driver of
its own, because all UltraCompact MiniThingummys use the same driver.

[Alternate method: Google for the display adapter and the words :: driver
download ::.]

Eventually, you'll end up downloading a zip or exe file. This is your
driver. Run this file, it will do what it has to do, almost certainly
reboot your PC, and [touch wood] resolve your problem.

[1] That's a properly Euro-standard jiffy, not these clunky big imperial

And to think they don't pay me enough for this sort of thing."

Booting into safe mode hasn't sorted it out, so I'm suspecting it's either the video card or just an overloaded power supply. I will try spreading everything out more first - if that doesn't work, then I will try taking the video card out and putting it back in again. The computer shop I tried today had a guy who sounded like he knew what he was on about and who actually seemed to be working on a number of computers rather than just selling them, which is a distinct improvement on other local computer shops I've known in the past.

Other thoughts on my trip into town: more shops closing down on Linthorpe Road, our main shopping street, than usual. The local department store, Uptons, has finally finished its closing-down sale (which seems to have been going on for about a year now) and has closed. No idea if there's any connection with this other chain called Uptons which closed recently. It is set to be replaced in the next few months by a new local department store owned by the bosses of local upmarket fashion shop Psyche. Apparently there are pretentions at creating a new sort of "Harvey Nichols"-type atmosphere, but I'm not convinced that that's what the Middlesbrough economy is crying out for - especially as another fashion shop directly opposite it, Cognoscenti, was having its own last day closing-down sale as well, with cheerful signs in the window that everything must go by 5:30 and that the shop fittings were also available for purchase.

It's not all doom and gloom, though - new businesses are starting up at quite a rate. We have slightly more bars, nightclubs, cafés and restaurants than are probably good for us. There are two second-hand goods shops which weren't there five years ago, and at least a couple more branches of the major bookmakers as well. There's a booming market in the highly profitable and worthwhile industry of tanning salons. (One tanning salon even managed to go bankrupt before it opened, which rather impressed me.) I also noticed that we have a new adult (porn) shop, though it's possible that it just might be the old one having moved from its previous, closer-to-the-centre-of-town-but-less-salubrious location. (Haven't been that way for a few weeks now. Besides, I'm not sure how you could from the outside tell whether the shop really was shut for good or not.) Hmm - one would have thought that a porn shop would theoretically probably benefit from being in a close-to-the-centre-of-town-but-less-salubrious location...

Middlesbrough. Vice capital of the North!
Current Mood: anti-climactic
Current Music: "Lupin III '78" and "Burning Heat" (usual cheerful Bemani)

(15 comments | Leave a comment)


Date:October 31st, 2002 08:43 pm (UTC)

Cool! I didn't know you were published! What's the book title name? Or is Mystery Puzzles the only book you've gotten published here in America so far? Good luck to you mate, that's quite the accomplishment.

[User Picture]
Date:November 1st, 2002 08:45 am (UTC)
Just Mystery Puzzles. At least, just Mystery Puzzles so far. ;-)

(To be honest, I can't see this changing in the foreseeable future - but you never know.)
[User Picture]
Date:November 1st, 2002 02:27 am (UTC)

A puzzle

I'm suitably awed by your name appearing on a book in the Bodleian and the British Library. Thanks for prompting me to return to it - you might get an email shortly asking for the answers...

How do publishers of puzzle books guard against plagiarism? Your integrity is apparent to all, of course, but there must still be a risk of inadvertent duplication. Copyright protects the expression of ideas but not the ideas themselves - so are puzzles like recipes, in that you won't get sued as long as the text isn't identical?
[User Picture]
Date:November 1st, 2002 08:54 am (UTC)

Re: A puzzle

Worry not - the answers are in the back.

The puzzle market is not so comprehensive that plagiarism has been a major concern; in a sense, we're all just plagiarising from Sam Loyd, or the Greeks, or someone else. Many good puzzles have come from putting a new twist on a familiar puzzle. A remix, if you will.

On further thought, I won't.
[User Picture]
Date:November 1st, 2002 03:22 am (UTC)

100 Puzzles

It occurs to me that your comment that it takes you a long time to create puzzles is probably a good sign from everything except a commercial point of view.

With the development of decently powerful computers it is now quite possible to write a computer program to generate unlimited numbers of puzzles within some given framework. However, whilst the first half dozen or so of any given type might be entertaining, repeatedly solving the same type of puzzle bores the socks off me. For one of the more enjoyable examples of computer-assisted puzzle generation, see the 'Planks' game on Andrea Gilbert's site.

A good puzzle is one which is innovative, but IMO a great puzzle is one the solution of which opens a door into a whole new set of ideas. In the same way that the old classic with the two doors and one guardian who always lies and one who tells the truth encapsulates the essence of all propositional logic in a single puzzle, I like things which are the starting points of trains of thought, not the ends.

Of course, out of 100 puzzles there will inevitably be some repetition of ideas, but if I bought a book with as many as half a dozen really ace puzzles for £4.99 I'd consider it money well spent.
Date:November 1st, 2002 04:28 am (UTC)

Careful thinking and silliness

Always a good combination, and the old two guardians classic is nicely attacked in a sequence of Triangle and Robert cartoons. If it starts to seem like I'm plugging this strip (and it hasn't happened yet, but it will), it's because it deserves plugging.

I can recommend Mystery Puzzles very much, sufficiently so that I had already bought it long before the author offered me a complimentary copy. They're largely of the "Look at this situation from a non-obvious angle" type, and none the worse for that.
[User Picture]
Date:November 1st, 2002 07:42 am (UTC)

Re: Careful thinking and silliness

Hurrah ! What a great link ! Very fine indeed !
[User Picture]
Date:November 1st, 2002 03:55 am (UTC)
I never knew you'd published a book. That's fantastic!

Hugs, warm thoughts and bushels of excellent ideas which cannot be described in less than a few thousand words to them all.
Thank you! :) I might enquire some of those good ideas however, anything that can boost my word count is acceptable. :p
[User Picture]
Date:November 1st, 2002 07:28 am (UTC)
Congratulations on being in print! It's definitely a thrill to see a familiar name on a dust jacket.

Barnes & Noble is, as you may know, a major book retail chain in the U.S., with stores in most major towns. Anything published under the B&N imprint is distributed only in B&N stores -- and nowhere else. That includes Amazon. You can, however, get it at the Barnes & Noble site. Buy a copy now and raise the ranking!

As you say, writing is a labor of love, as authors are paid relatively little for their work. Let's say someone writes a standard mystery, which is published in hardcover and appears mostly in libraries. ABC Press prints 5,000 copies at $22.95, which means the author gets $11,475 (standard royalty rates are 10 percent of list price for the first 5,000 sold, 12-1/2 percent on the next 5,000, and 15 percent thereafter) and must pay his or her agent 10 percent of that, leaving $10,327.50. Not a lot left over.

This is one reason why I never took writing a book on game shows past the talking stage (an editor at SMP saw Game Shows '75 and started talking to me about it. Sell 10,000 copies (dubious) in paperback at $16.95 at 7-1/2 royalties (trade paperback royalty rates are generally 7-1/2 percent for the first 25,000 and 10 percent thereafter), leaving $12,712.50 -- and out of that, I'd have to pay for photos (and research and obtain permissions) and do oodles of research. I'll leave that to Schwartz, Wostbrock, and Ryan.
[User Picture]
Date:November 1st, 2002 09:22 am (UTC)
I was evidently with the wrong publisher. :-) The percentage of royalties I received was a step or two down the ladder from that.
[User Picture]
Date:November 1st, 2002 10:38 am (UTC)
I should point out that many of the titles published under the Barnes & Noble imprint are classic books that have fallen into the public domain. So nobody gets any money but B&N.

It's possible they reached an agreement with your British publisher based on a far reduced royalty rate. When I first started at SMP, an enterprising young editor there had managed to publish Kenneth Maynard's Lieutenant Lamb series at an astonishing 60 cent flat fee royalty, which was a bit less than 5 percent of list price.
[User Picture]
Date:November 6th, 2002 04:56 pm (UTC)
I am getting 5% of what Robinson receive from Barnes and Noble. Robinson are getting somewhere around USD 2 for each USD 5.98 book, so I'm getting something like USD 0.10 per copy sold by B&N.

That's really sucky, isn't it?
[User Picture]
Date:November 1st, 2002 09:23 am (UTC)
I noticed one of the books in your series at the B&N the last time I was there; I sought your book but couldn't find it.

Knowing that they swapped puzzles around will induce me to buy all four, as soon as I purchased one. That could be a while, though. There's gonna be a post one of these days detailing my life post-September 5. It hasn't been fun.

Also good to know that A to Z of everything's delay wasn't Trevor's fault. I'm compiling a dream list for when The Check gets here, and that's on it.

And I'm dying to know who Fat Bastard is. I have enough UK puzzle and quiz books that I may recognize the name. If you're talking an American author, I know it's either one of two guys, both of whom were mentioned by name in quiz bowl questions writing resources as unreliable.

[User Picture]
Date:November 2nd, 2002 04:25 am (UTC)

I have a very clever 'tower' 10 block, which is vertical and allows one to plug five items into either side. It's surge protected, too.

Normal flat ten blocks are obtainable, although I'm not sure where. If you want contact details for acquiring a tower 10 block (which costs around £20), ask.

[User Picture]
Date:November 6th, 2002 04:57 pm (UTC)
Sounds ideal. Yes please! Ask! Ask!

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